Aural Impressions: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway

I’ve loved just about everything Andrew McMahon has created.  I knew Something Corporate before I even knew the name of its frontman.  I first heard Jack’s Mannequin not knowing it wasn’t Something Corporate.  I’ve been a fan of his for long time, and as such, every new release of his brings excitement and anticipation.  That said, I listened to his latest release Zombies on Broadway, the second album of his latest venture In The Wilderness, while on my returning flight from India last week, and, well, it’s alright. The band slowly released songs starting last year, and some took a bit of growing, as I’ll mention below.  One of them, however, rubbed me the wrong way enough to kill some of the hype.  I also just happened to hold my listening session during some pretty rough turbulence over the Middle East; this compounded my already dulling enjoyment.  Of course, I’m not one to write off music after one disappointing listen, so here I am again after a deep listen to give a real “first” impression.  Let’s do this.

  1. Zombies Intro:  A brief collage of ambient city noise, including a plucked string instrument, subway trains, and singing (busking?), that crescendos into the first song.
  2. Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me:  With a fast, treble-filled drum beat and a stuttering spoken vocal, we kick off a song that’s simultaneously fresh and nostalgic.  There hasn’t been a track this energetic since Jack’s Mannequin, and the half-rapped lyrics are a direct link to Everything in Transit.  A bouncing bass and reversed piano chords, soon topped with a chiming piano riff make this immediately my favorite song of Andrew’s in a long time.  The verse doesn’t hesitate as it breaks into a loud, sing-a-long chorus.  An anthemic bridge of multitracked “lalala”s is sure to be the sound of the next tour.  A clashing solo of hard piano chords, distorted guitar and bass lead into a brief respite without drums.  The production on this track is outstanding.  A third chorus lulls with all of the bass levels we’d missing, coupled with the high piano riff, blasting into the fully powered instrumental and vocal anthem from before until close.  This was the first song of the preview releases to sell me on this album, and I think it might still be my favorite.  Incredible.
  3. So Close:  This starts with a lot of production; staccato, reverberating sounds from an instrument I cannot identify, shifting into a chord progression that I did not expect, but reminds me of early Jack’s yet again.  However, the second shift into a rising structure coupled with heavy drums portends lesser things, and once we’re at the chorus, I’m lost.  It builds like so many songs on this and the previous album, into a loud, vocal heavy, yet lyrically weak, climax.  Handclap beat, a catchy funky bassline, and synths are fine; they’re just kind of played out at this point, and a bit more mainstream than I really want in my Wilderness.  This was the song that reversed my hype.  I want it to be a grower, but there’s not a ton of substance here for me to come back to.  There’s one chord change before the chorus that I really like, in addition to the first 15 seconds. There are also some very Jack’s Mannequin-esque screams over the end, which is nice; I fear that’s about all I like though.
  4. Don’t Speak For Me (True):  More heavy production, a squealing riff intro, and a low-key verse with deep drums and snaps, transition into a minimal pre-chorus with another upbeat piano progression and soon a quarter-kick beat.  Unfortunately, we’ve got another loud, dense, albeit short, chorus, wherein the squeal-riff returns and a falsetto vocal line dominates.  It feels very radio-ish, again.  I like some of the chord changes here, but it doesn’t have the instrumental complexity to really make me take notice.  It has less energy than “So Close,” and with the structure being so similar, I’m starting to get fatigued already.
  5. Fire Escape:  Chiming pianos, bells, and a teased sing-a-long response vocal start the lead single from the album.  A narrative vocal above a sentimental bed of sound almost makes this feel like more than a song.  When the vocals of the verse intensify, I’m warmed by the thought of Glass Passenger.  We’ve got another loud, anthemic chorus, though the production isn’t as thick, employing a typical rock setup with pianos, an acoustic guitar, a wall of drums, and some stuttering synths.  There’s a steady momentum to the verses as they push along; it’s a lot more natural than the last two tracks.  A brief bridge leads into a semi-solo vocal chorus, with instruments returning every few bars, where the full chorus once again returns, as expected.  I like this song, even if it is a bit of a continuation of the formula.  It works well as a single.
  6. Dead Man’s Dollar:  Minor key piano and vocal sound effects mark a downbeat shift we desperately need.  Quarters on the kick are the only drums we’ve got through the first verse, and into the pre-chorus we add only a layered vocoder on the lyrics.  Of course, we blast into a sudden and unnecessarily anthemic chorus.  I thought there were too many of this type of song on the self-titled album, and now that we’re here I’m hoping Andrew breaks this pattern soon.  That said, the verses here are really quite nice.  The second has a warm bass and a few new tracks of percussion, though these cut out at the pre-chorus again.  The bridge sounds a lot like a retooling of “Cecilia and the Satellite” from the last album, using the same piano and vocal rhythms.  We close on the chorus, yet again.  I’m going to need something amazing to really get these tracks to grow on me.
  7. Shot Out Of A Cannon:  Starting in the same key as “Dead Man’s Dollar,” I have the impression that this is some kind of continuation, however it diverges rather soon.  Solo piano and vocal are joined by another steady kick beat.  Here we go again.  The chorus is a bit subdued, though it maintains the same lyrical (title repetition) pattern as the not-so-good songs on the album so far.  The strength here is on the slow build, as elements are brought in to diversify the feeling and draw attention.  A dance-able hi-hat and a guitar riff lend to a smooth, bassy second chorus-half.   Falsetto vocals and hand claps bring this into throwback territory; edging against the mainstream.  It’s heavily reminiscent of any number of rock bands making dance music on the radio these days.  That’s not much of a compliment, except to say that if I were forced to listen to Top 40 hits, they would probably be the ones that sounded like this.  I’m sure this one is a grower.
  8. Walking In My Sleep:  Multi-tracked a Capella.  Unexpected.  The piano here is sustained, and the kick is irregular.  Good signs.  There’s a sharp transition to chorus, which is as usual, but it’s not overly grand.  This is another track that might be a good fit on a movie soundtrack.  It’s got that upbeat, yet cold feel.  That is, until the bridge.  The vocals take a backseat to the piano chords, where Andrew unleashes a striking frisson-filled E major chord.  It’s a passing feeling, but it’s an incredible one.  The song as a whole is okay, however that bridge will keep me coming back over and over.  Before the ending chorus (duh) we’ve got a quick shift from whispered vocals, to full layered a Capella, to full band in a matter of seconds.  It’s a jarring transition that feels a little bit unpolished, but you know what, I like it!  Besides, the album’s conclusion is comparatively very strong.
  9. Island Radio:  We begin with a de-tuned and echoing piano, sounding almost like steel drums and a galloping drum/bass combination.  There’s something different about this song.  It’s got yet another suddenly loud chorus, yet the piano riff and chord progression combination is soothing and takes some of the edge off of what would otherwise be tiring and bothersome.  It feels a bit like “Maps For The Getaway”at times, which is one of my least favorites from the last album; the somewhat tropical texture of “Island Radio” has this one in the opposite position.
  10. Love And Great Buildings:  A processed, toy piano flutters high notes.  There’s a lot of space here.  Vocals are slow and rested.  The verse grows slowly, adding guitar/synth to copy the piano, bass, a drumbeat and an acoustic guitar to cap it all.  The chorus is wonderful — like a real song.  There’s little transition, only good feelings.  An unexpected F♯m chord tickles my fancy.  A light, uplifting mood fills the choruses, only growing stronger as the song moves forward.  There’s a hey-o chant that sounds almost exactly one heard on Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa,” which must be a coincidence, right?  There’s a New York subtext to this whole album, so maybe not?  This is without a doubt one of the best songs on Zombies, if not the best.
  11. Birthday Song:  Or maybe it’s this, an epic tribute song, filled with allusions to what must be his family.  Solo piano and voice to begin a very sentimental verse.  The chord progression is completely reminiscent of later Jack’s Mannequin, and the chorus adds just enough movement and minimal instrumentation to elevate and drive the stretched vocal notes.  It’s somewhat ordered turbulence as electronic drums combine with reverberating acoustic toms, bass, and swirling organ-like pads.  It’s a big song without being too big or too obvious.  Andrew’s vocals shine at the end, loud and clear among the continued maelstrom of percussion and glimmering piano.  What a way to close an album.  I’m torn between this, “Brooklyn,” and “Love and Great Buildings” for best of — maybe a three-way tie depending on how I’m feeling.  To bookend the album, it finishes with a reprise of the noise collage, this time featuring what sounds like a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.  Interesting, and not the first time that song has come up in my listening.

So, that was something.  I’ve never had so harsh a response to an Andrew McMahon album before.  Granted, that’s not saying much since there’s still a lot of good here.  However, I’m a bit worried.  Many of these songs are formulaic, tap unnecessarily into modern trends, and when listened to all at once, don’t grab any interest.  When I first listened to the self-titled album, I was concerned when there were four songs in a row with nothing more than quarters on the kick as a drum foundation.  Here it’s the same thing, but somehow it’s less tolerable.  The quiet verse/sudden chorus explosion with high vocals thing is done far too much here, especially in the middle few tracks.  I’m reminded of Our Lady Peace’s formula on Burn Burn, which is really not that great of an album either.  I’m worried that, as they did, Andrew will lose what made his earlier works so great and timeless.  However, however, the songs on here that I love, truly love, are some of the finest I’ve heard from him.  He’s clearly still got it, despite all of the filler.  I’m less certain of what’s to come from him and his new (old) band, yet I can’t lose faith in the man.  Besides, I’m seeing him live again in May.  It’s been awhile since the days when he was seemingly ever-present in my life, and I’d like to recapture that magical feeling once again.

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